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Massive winter storm could keep grocery shelves empty even longer

<i>Alex Wong/Getty Images</i><br/>
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Alex Wong/Getty Images

By Parija Kavilanz, CNN Business

Grocery stores had already been struggling to keep their shelves stocked because of supply chain delays and Omicron sickening workers. Now, markets across America are bracing for a major winter storm that could keep store shelves empty even longer.

A significant winter storm headed toward the Midwest, South and East Coast over the long holiday weekend is poised to deliver another blow to grocery sellers struggling to keep enough supplies of everyday essentials — milk, juice, produce, soups and meats — in stock.

Severe weather events are notorious for triggering grocery stockpiling by consumers, said Miguel Gomez, Robert G. Tobin professor of food marketing at Cornell University’s Dyson School of Applied Economics.

“These winter storms are unfortunately going to add delays to an already strained supply chain,” he said. “I do think shoppers will see out-of-stocks in stores for certain grocery products.”

The timing of the storms couldn’t be worse for supermarkets. In recent days, consumers around the country have unleashed their frustration on social media, posting photos on Twitter of bare shelves at Trader Joe’s locations, Giant Foods and Publix stores, among many others.

Miah Daughtery posted a photo on Twitter on Jan. 9 from a Trader Joe’s location in Bethesda, Maryland, showing multiple shelves that were picked clean of produce and other food items. “This was 4 o’clock in the afternoon. This store is always stocked at that time,” she said.

Daughtery was so surprised that she approached an employee to ask if the store was closing. She was told that grocery supplies were low because the delivery truck was delayed by the weather storm that has moved up the East Coast last weekend. “There was not a single egg at the store, no fresh fruit, no garlic. Basically the day-to-day staples were sparse,” said Daughtery.

On Thursday, Daughtery went to a nearby by Giant Food store. “There was no ground chicken and the dairy items were almost wiped out,” she said.

Frozen goods, meats, cookies, juices paper products in tight supply

Supermarket chains nationwide currently are dealing with tighter supplies of all kinds of food and household goods, according to the latest data from market research firm IRI.

According to IRI, grocery stores in the best of times are stocked 90% to 95% across product categories. Consumers start to notices gaps on store shelves when inventory falls below 90%.

IRI’s data for the week ended Jan. 9 showed supplies of several food and beverage categories were below that threshold: frozen and refrigerated meats were below 90%, frozen baked goods were at 69%, and fruits, cookie and breakfast items all fell below 90%. Refrigerated beverages were at 88% and refrigerated dough took the steepest drop to 60%.

Elsewhere, sports and energy drinks, juices, pet care and paper products were also below 90% supply for the week.

As product supplies thin out, shoppers are having to absorb higher food prices.

Teresa Hinke was at a Wegmans store in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, earlier this week and said she’s frustrated with both supply chain issues causing empty shelves and food prices skyrocketing.

“I stopped into Wegmans and I was shocked,” she said. Hinke bought some chicken but wasn’t able to get the fresh seafood she was hoping to buy. “The flank steak was over $25 and scallops were $32.99 a pound,” she said, adding that a nearby ShopRite store was better stocked.

Be flexible

The onslaught of severe weather events, even in a typical year, tends to disrupt the grocery supply chain.

“It’s usually short-lived and then we move on,” said Doug Baker, vice president of industry relations with FMI, the Food Industry Association, an industry trade group.

But, because of Omicron and large absenteeism in the food industry, winter weather setbacks are making the supply chain function more complex, said Baker.

Specifically, he anticipates consumers in affected areas ahead of the approaching storms will stock up. “It’s human nature to respond to what we see and hear. It will happen,” said Baker.

His advice: Given the tight supplies in foods stores, shoppers should try to be flexible.

“If your favorite brand is not on the shelf, find a substitute,” Baker said. “Resist hoarding. If you take a little bit more than what you need, it can compound the situation.”

Daughtery said she’s not stockpiling groceries and will try to be creative with groceries she already has at home.

“When the pandemic started I kept a running supply of staples at home,” she said. “The worst case scenario is I can always bake a cake and eat it if I run low in the next couple of days.”

She plans to check out her local farmers markets soon to buy fresh produce she couldn’t find at Trader Joe’s.

“I’m blessed but I am checking in on my elderly neighbors who can’t access grocery stores or have supplies in abundance,” said Daughtery.

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